Monday, January 6, 2014

"Well, At Least We Got a Point": The Wild in 2013

This is Part 2 of a 7-part look-back at what happened in Minnesota sports over the past 12 months. Some of these stories are obviously figments of my imagination. A couple actually happened. These are the tales, imageries, conversations, and visualizations that best described, at least for me, what it meant to be a Minnesota sports fan over the past 12 months.

Cal Clutterbuck, commencing his traditional post-goal rendition of "The Circle of Life." Courtesy of the AP.

The game proceeded as most other high-stakes contests had during the time I had known these guys. Tense stretches of rising action followed by Vesuvius bursts of unfettered emotion: directed at refs, at the personal shortcomings of opposing players, at the heroics of Josh Harding, the Wild’s emergency man-between-the-pipes.

A first period Cal Clutterbuck tally sent us into raptures, but an absolute snipe by Marian Hossa late in the second equalized for the host Blackhawks. The shots piled up for Chicago, but Josh Harding went low, went high, and stayed in front of everything the world-class opposition could throw at him. The game trickled into overtime, and star Zach Parise had a clear shot from in front that goalie Corey Crawford kicked just wide.

And then, late in the first OT period, Chicago’s Johnny Oduya sent a ridiculous 70-foot pass off the right-side Plexiglas to a cutting Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg’s perfect centering pass to Bryan Bickell allowed Bickell to round a beaten Josh Harding and throw an easy back-handed shot into the twine. We let out a deflated collective sigh as United Center erupted.

Was this the game-winning goal from Game 1? You make the call!
Thirty or so seconds of gloom followed, along with a few muttered obscenities. Tom finally broke the silence with a strangely chipper proclamation.

“Well, at least we got a point,” he said.

It was April 30, 2013, and Game 1 of the Wild-Blackhawks series was our first winter pro team playoff viewing experience in five years, so we gave him a break. Decided not to bust his balls too hard. But we did have to break the news to Tom that there is no playoff team point system. The Wild lost the game and the West’s top-seeded team was now one win closer to eliminating our plucky squad in the first round of the playoffs.

He sat, stone-faced, for a minute as this news soaked in. Then his lower lip started to quiver. “Oh…oh, Tommy,” we said with equal parts pity and understanding, but the 6-foot-5 Thomas had already begun the hard charge to his bedroom pillow for a healthy cry, his size-14 Crocs thumping through the creaky floorboards of our three-story Edina home.


Tom’s misguided but well-intentioned post-Game 1 statement actually serves as a pretty keen descriptor for the Wild’s 2013 calendar year—well, for the first 11 months of it, anyway. Once the lockout ended in mid-January new additions Zach Parise and Ryan Suter finally got to show off why they deserved their twin 13-year, $98 million deals, with Parise leading the team in goals and points, and Suter tallying 28 assists to pace the squad while leading the league in time on the ice.

Ryan Suter! Zach Parise! NEXT on CNN's newly re-booted "Crossfire"!!!
But regression on other fronts kept the Wild from climbing to the upper echelon of Western Conference teams. Minnesota native Tom Gilbert disappointed in his first full season with his hometown club, hit-seeking winger Clutterbuck had an off year, and highly touted Swedish prospect Mikael Granlund struggled to adapt to the physicality of the NHL.

The Wild needed to scramble to even qualify for that eighth playoff spot, as an April swoon of six losses in the month’s first seven games had them briefly outside the conference’s top eight. Their tense season finale victory over Colorado became a necessity to keep Columbus from earning the final berth in the West.

The lockout-shortened season’s condensed schedule exposed the Wild’s lack of quality depth, and a late-season trade for reliable winger Jason Pominville was negated by a nasty elbow to the face from L.A. Kings captain Dustin Brown in the third-to-last game of the year. The resulting concussion knocked Pominville out of the majority of the Blackhawks series.

"Tonight, the role of 'Minnesota sports fan' will be played by Jason Pominville's chin." Courtesy of
The first half of the 2013-14 season has seen the Wild treading the same territory as they did most of last year. Josh Harding has probably been the star of the season thus far, entering the New Year in the top five in goals against average, and keeping the leagues fourth-worst offense on a goals-per-game basis in the playoff hunt. But he was placed on the NHL’s weird short-ish version of Injured Reserve today, as he has struggled to find the right combination of medication to combat his multiple sclerosis. Niklas Backstrom signed a 3-year deal to presumably maintain his spot as starting goalie, but he’s been largely terrible and currently carries a sub-.900 save percentage.

A six-game losing skid in which they couldn’t even muster an OT point and rarely looked competitive closed out the Wild’s December and has coincided with mounting injuries to some of the team’s biggest names. Harding, Parise, center Mikko Koivu, and defenseman Jared Spurgeon are all currently on the shelf. The Wild probably wish Russia would have scheduled the damn Olympics (“IT’S SOME KIND OF COMMIE PLOT, I KNOW IT. U-S-A, U-S-A.” –Jake Holsten) a little sooner than mid-February. With four of the team’s (probably) ten best players sitting out, the losses—and heat below the seat of coach Mike Yeo—may continue to mount in the meantime.

Fun fact: Google tries to auto-correct "Mike Yeo sad" to "make you sad," which is what Yeo's dump-and-chase scheme does to Wild fans.

Tony and I gave him a few minutes before ascending the basement stairs to see if he was doing any better.

The sobstorm had subsided to some light, drizzly moaning when we entered Tom’s room to try and console the guy. “You just…you try kind of hard and you do okay, and I don’t know…I just thought we’d get a little something at the end of the day,” he said, muffled, with his head buried in the pillow. We tried to level with him and agreed that some guys had played pretty well but that it would be pretty dumb to give points for overtime playoff losses, because how would that be different from the regular season? That reasoning didn’t make much sense. Also, Chicago was probably just the better team.

He picked his head up off the pillow, puffy bags already formed under his eyes. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I just wish we were the better team. Once. Ever. In anything. Besides women’s hockey.”
Such is life as a fan of Minnesota sports.

Pictured: An honest-to-goodness successful Minnesota sports team. Courtesy of the Star Tribune.
Outside of a Game 3 overtime win—before which coach Mike Yeo implored his team to heed the words of Olivia Newton-John and get physical, physical—the Wild looked largely outclassed by the stronger, deeper, Stanley Cup-winning Hawks squad. Five games into their first playoff appearance in five years, the Wild’s season came to a close. Tony and I were disappointed, but Tom’s pillowcase probably took it the hardest.


Highlight: The Wild finally bested the Timberwolves in what might as well have been named the Kraft Fight Winter Futility Bowl; both teams hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in several years, but the Wild’s 3-1 win over the Avalanche on the season’s last night secured their first post-season appearance in seasons.

Lowlight: The Wild sort of gained a reputation among my friends for being terrible in shootouts, but they actually won four of their six games that went to shootouts last season and have won five of nine such contests this year. However, Opening Night at the X this year was one big two-minute-long fart noise of a sudden-death decider against the Kings. Parise and Koivu didn’t even get shots off, and Backstrom was completely flummoxed by two backhands.

(Apologies to Gophers women’s hockey. They’re awesome, and I will actually attempt to write an article about them later in this series. Part 3 features the Twins; look for it later this week.)

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